My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Dead Mountain recounts the disappearance of the Dyatlov hiking group in February 1959, the subsequent investigation, and the author’s own attempt to find the truth to this unsolved mystery. I feel like I say some variant of this a lot (maybe it reflects the subject matter of many of my reading choices), but a book like this could go two ways: grotesque sensationalism or careful contemplation of the relevant data. I was impressed to discover that Donnie Eichar goes hard down the latter path.
Eichar wisely sticks close to the facts. He casts the hikers and their families in a sympathetic light, avoiding speculative melodrama. He is attentive to detail and is careful in crafting a narrative out of the events. He goes through the available theories as to what happened and implodes them one by one. He admits to remaining ambiguity but ultimately settles on natural infrasound produced by a Karman vortex street; the final chapter of the book is his reimagining of the hikers’ final night, applying this theory to the available facts. I was especially worried about the tone of the chapter, but once more my concerns were quieted: Eichar does not present it as a definitive interpretation, but as a buest-guess reconstruction, and his depiction of the hikers’ actions is tragic and heroic while fitting the data rather well, interpreting odd details and filling gaps.
I don’t think the case can be considered solved; as one of Eichar’s experts puts it, “What you’re really trying to do is reverse-engineer a tragic event without any witnesses.” Eichar does the best with what’s available, offering an interpretation that seems more probable than the other available interpretations out there. His attention to the actual reported dates of “fire orbs” in the skies (and matching them to information about missile launches in the area), his consideration of the slope of the mountain and consultation with an avalanche expert, his ability to reintepret the radiation evidence by way of yet another expert, and his emphasis on the lack of supporting evidence for basically any other theory out there helps to make the natural infrasound theory seem more likely.
The Dyatlov Pass incident is a compelling mystery in and of itself, but the echo chamber of the Internet (and the language barrier present between English-speaking Internet sleuths and the Russian source material) has resulted in a distortion of key facts and an over-emphasis on certain details and phrases that create the impression of a potential larger mystery that could implicate UFOs, secret weapons, and a Russian government cover-up. Eichar tears right through the distortions. So many “facts” about the state of the bodies, about sightings in the skies, about things said and seen, are put in their right place here. Things that seem bizarre at first glance have simple explanations available. Dead Mountain reads like a clever deciphering of the truth.
I didn’t like everything about the book. The interweaving of the story of the hikers, the story of the investigation, and the story of Eichar’s own involvement leads to some confusion and false suspense, as we keep cutting back between different events. Obviously the goal is to create an ongoing sense of mystery, but I do think it buries important information Eichar had, only revealing it (or putting it in the right context) toward the end when he draws his conclusions. Also, I could have used less of Eichar himself. The sections recounting his own investigation were the least interesting. I appreciate the research he put into it, and the emphasis on how many times he was relying on very little or no translation clearly shows how difficult it can be to research a book that spans not only countries but languages, but so much feels like a travelogue or adventure journal, with random tidbits of information that he found interesting (whether about gulags, Gary Powers, or the administrative history of NOAA) tossed in throughout. He also spends a lot of time worrying about why he chose to right the story. The reasoning is shallow: he came across the story while researching something else, he spent time reading about it online, and he had the resources to take a couple trips to Russia to gain access to informants and documents (and to take a largely pointless trip to Dyatlov Pass so that he could feel like he was replicating the journey of the hikers). His discomfort with why he’s researching the story and his recognition that it’s a bit silly that he thought he could just waltz into a foreign country to solve their decades-old mystery for them ultimately take up too much of the story and feel self-absorbed. He could have cut the focus on his personal life and the navel-gazing about his role as author, left in his interviews with the informants and experts, saved himself the money for the hiking trip, and probably would have ended up with a better book. As for justification, the Dyatlov Pass story is interesting but not well-covered outside of Russia, and that’s reason enough for a writer to tackle it. I know that others may feel differently–where I read self-absorption, others might see the self-involvement and self-reflection as an active attempt to insert the author as an active participant into the story, as all authors are to some extent. Whether this attempt at “literary nonfiction” (to use the book jacket’s words) succeeds on that count or not is surely subjective.
So much of the mystery of the Dyatlov expedition, and so much of the focus of this book, is not in how the hikers died but in why they would so desperately evacuate their tent to freeze to death in the elements. I have a mystery of my own now: not in how Eichar was involved in the story, but in what level of involvement his coauthors had. Eichar alone appears on the cover, but the title page does say that the book was written “with JC Gabel and Nova Jacobs,” and they get smaller blurbs on the back flap of the book jacket. In his acknowledgements, buried toward the middle, Eichar writes that without the “tireless editing, writing and research contributions” of Gabel and Jacobs, “the book would not have been possible.” How much of the book did they write? How much of the research did they undertake? Especially when Eichar spends so much time on his own research and involvement in the story, his neglect of his writing partners in the narrative is especially conspicuous. I guess that’s a mystery for another time, though.
If you’ve ever found yourself intrigued by the story of the Dyatlov hiking group, I would certainly recommend Dead Mountain as a careful, sober account of the events, the investigation, and the available theories. Unsolved mysteries invite wild speculation and dazzlingly improbable interpretations, and it is always refreshing when such a mystery is treated with serious concern, and when the central figures of the mystery–the victims–are treated with such sympathy.